Millions of Bengalis woke up today at Brahma muhurta — a little over 1.5 hours before sunrise — to listen to a timeless and epic rendition of the Mahishasura Mardini, which heralds the advent of devi paksha.
This delightful and uplifting recitation, interspersed with hymns, orchestra, and soulful songs, triggers the beginning of Durga puja festivities.
The inimitable presentation of Mahishasura Mardini by the legendary Birendra Krishna Bhadra has become an integral part of the collective consciousness of all Bengalis.
And its broadcast by All India Radio (AIR) before every Mahalaya dawn has been the longest-running programme of the public broadcaster.
AIR has been doing it since 1931. Today was the 91st anniversary of the first broadcast of Mahishasura Mardini by Bhadra.
Bhadra’s matchless invocation of devi Durga through a nearly two-hour montage of chanting and recitation of the scriptural verses of Durga Saptashati (also known as Devi Mahatmya) is a timeless classic.
His soulful invocation of the goddess and description of devi Durga triumphing over the forces of evil personified by Mahishasura brings alive the intense battle in a unique and matchless soul-stirring manner.
Generations of Bengalis have been waking up this predawn autumn to listen to Mahishasura Mardini that is aptly described as “a remarkable piece of audio drama that is matchless in Indian culture.”
The stillness of Mahalaya’s predawn darkness resonates with the long-drawn sound of blowing of the sacred conch shell. This is followed by a soothing tune from Raga Malkauns before a chorus of invocation of the devi sets the stage for the recital of the Chandi path.
And then comes Bhadra’s ringing announcement: “Ashwiner sharade prate beje utheche alokomonjir… (a brilliant light bursts through a veil of clouds and lights the autumn skies...). That, for Bengalis across the world, is a stirring signal for Durga puja festivities to begin.
For Bengalis, it is an eternally delightful medley of narration of shlokas and singing of hymns in chaste Sanskrit, orchestra and chorus that tell the story of the atrocities of Mahishasura; how the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwar come together to create devi Durga, upon whom all the gods and goddesses bestow their blessings and weapons; and how the powerful 10-armed devi riding a lion slays Mahishasura.
What makes the rendition of Mahishasura Mardini by Bhadra so unique is his complete and sincere emotional and soulful involvement in the narration. His voice rings an ominous note when the demons under Mahishasura start torturing the gods and goddesses.
It takes on a salutary and reverential tone dripping with anticipation when he describes the devi preparing for battle: Ya devi sarva bhuteshu matri rupena samasthita, a shloka that is a salutation to the supreme manifestation of devi or female power.
Ultimately, Bhadra announces the slaying of Mahishasura by the devi in a voice choked with emotion, rejoicing the triumph of good over evil.
The narration ends with the shloka reiterating humankind’s eternal supplication before the supreme being: Ya devi sarva bhuteshu, sakti rupena sanksthita, namasteshwai namasteshwai namasteshwai namo namaha.
And with this shloka, predawn darkness dissolves into a glorious dawn brought forth by the first rays of the rising sun.
Many Bengalis, especially those belonging to the younger generations, may not be able to comprehend the Sanskrit shlokas. But everyone can comprehend the subliminal essence of the rendition and the strong underlying note of good triumphing over evil.
And to everyone, ranging from the devout to the atheist and even Bengalis practising Abrahamic religions, Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s Mahishasura Mardini is an evocative start to the community’s biggest festive season.
The AIR Programme
Birendra Krishna Bhadra, born to a distinguished family of lawyers and linguists in 1905, graduated from Scottish Church College in Calcutta and joined the Railways as a clerk.
But his interests in the arts took him to the theatre (as a playwright and director) and then to AIR, where he became a popular voice for plays.
AIR was mulling a recital to mark the beginning of Durga puja festivities. Bhadra, along with music doyens like Pankaj Kumar Mullick and Raichand Boral, and AIR’s programme director Nripen Majumdar, hit upon the idea of a recital of Durga Saptashati, complete with songs, shlokas, and an orchestra.
AIR authorities took up the idea and asked a host of people to start working on it. Radio playwright and composer Bani Kumar composed the script that was to be narrated by Bhadra. The enchanting music was composed by Mullick.
Many famous vocalists of the yesteryear — Pratima Bandopadhyay, Shyamal Mitra, Aarati Mukhopadhyay, Manabendra Mukhopadhyay, Dwijen Mukhopadhyay, Utpala Sen, Krishna Dasgupta, Sipra Bose, Dhananjay Bhattacharya, Haimanti Shukla, Tarun Bandopadhyay, Sumitra Sen, Ashima Bhattacharya, Bimal Bhishan, and Supriti Ghosh — sang the melodious numbers.
For the first 34 years, it was a live programme. Bhadra and all the others would assemble at the AIR studio in Calcutta at 2:30 am. All men would wear crisp white dhotis and kurtas, while the womenfolk would be attired in traditional red-bordered white saris. It was customary for everyone to take a bath before assembling at the studio.
After rehearsals and a short prayer, the programme would go on air at 4 am. Over the next 85 minutes, a soul-lifting and surreal experience would set the mood for Agomoni, the arrival of devi Durga along with her children — Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik, and Ganesh — from the Kailash Parvat (mountain).
From 1966, AIR started broadcasting the recorded version of Mahishasura Mardini.
In 1976, AIR decided to replace Bhadra’s Mahishasura Mardini with Durga Durgatiharini. Legendary Bengali actor Uttam Kumar replaced Bhadra as the narrator, while Hemanta Mukhopadhyay composed the music.
But this programme was a flop and evoked widespread protests. Demonstrations were held in Calcutta and some other parts of Bengal.
The Union Information and Broadcasting Minister at the time, Vidya Charan Shukla (the infamous Emergency-era minister), was forced to intervene and announced that AIR would not broadcast the Durga Durgatiharini.
One of the first announcements by Shukla’s successor, L K Advani (in the Janata Party government that came to power in 1977), was that AIR would resume the broadcast of Bhadra’s Mahishasura Mardini. Such was the popularity of this programme.
That popularity remains unabated. Mahishasura Mardini has moved with the times and is live-streamed, downloaded, and available on YouTube and even on various Android and iPhone apps.
Its appeal remains timeless. All those who played a part in the original rendition of Mahishasura Mardini are no more. Bhadra himself passed away in 1991.
But their stellar creation lives on because of the magic they created. A magic that is part-religious, part-cultural, and part-social, and a work of rare artistic excellence.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.